If Merle Haggard is country music's greatest living artist, it is partly due to the ear-stretching body of work he has contributed over the last 25 years. While the works of Johnny Cash or George Jones seem inevitably defined by their singular voices and styles, Haggard's recordings are characterized by their diversity. He has recorded train and prison songs, folk tales, honky-tonk, love ballads and social commentary, as well as tributes to most of the important artists and styles in country music history.
Over the last few years, Haggard's records have been full of highly reflective and melancholy balladry rendered in an instrumentally stark style that recalls Willie Nelson. There have been some brilliant moments, including a Grammy-winning performance of Lefty Frizzell's fatalistic "That's The Way Love Goes," but his recent albums have lacked the instrumental verve associated in the past with his nonpareil western jazz band, the Strangers. Haggard's new album, "Kern River" (Epic SE 39602), is an outright pleasure simply because it balances his lovely autumnal ballads with more freewheeling swing.
The title track is a wistful piece of autobiography that, like many of Haggard's recent originals, dwells on the irretrievability of the past and the wearying pressure of time itself. In this slow-moving but steady remembrance, as well as three other numbers by his songwriting sidekick Freddie Powers, the drama is focused on Haggard's warm baritone. Some of these songs could sound simply nostalgic or even self-pitying if not for the powerful sense of experience conveyed by the reserve of Haggard's delivery and the slight, but emotionally effective, tricks he plays with his voice.
Not all of "Kern River" is about the aches of aging, and Haggard and the Strangers kick up their heels on some delightful standards. Jimmy Belkin's fiddle leads the band through a sprightly western swing treatment of "There I've Said It Again," and Don Markham's Dixieland horn work enlivens a version of Louis Armstrong's "Big Butter and Egg Man" that loosens Haggard's voice into one of his playful yodels.
On the traditional "The Old Watermill," he assumes his favorite role, that of band leader. As Roy Nichols takes off on a jazzy guitar lead or Mark Yeary lights up his barrelhouse piano, you can picture Haggard, like Bob Wills 30 years ago, pointing to each soloist as his turn comes and grinning at the results.
Not surprisingly, Haggard has influenced a new generation of hard country singers, and echoes of his style can be heard in the recordings of John Anderson, Earl Thomas Conley, Keith Whitley, Gene Watson and, especially, George Strait. "Greatest Hits" (MCA-5567), which collects the smash singles from Strait's first three albums, offers ample proof that this young, handsome Texan is one of the best things to happen to the western side of country in years.
Like Haggard's, Strait's music draws on the honky-tonk and western swing styles still popular in Texas dance halls. Further, like Haggard's, Strait's firm delivery conveys an emotional honesty a cut apart from the hokey soap operas of the Nashville music machine.
While "Greatest Hits" obviously leans toward Strait's more commercial recordings, you won't find honky-tonk any more solid and tearful than his first hit, "Unwound." With a hard beat and classic fills of pedal steel guitar and fiddle, Strait tosses off a host of knockout lines, such as "That woman I had wrapped around my finger just came unwound." There are some beer hall ballads, such as "Let's Fall to Pieces Together," some shuffles and a scintillating swing version of "Right or Wrong." Through it all, Strait sings straight, hard and true to his inspirations.
A young artist whose music recalls the rocking Bakersfield honky-tonk of early Haggard and Buck Owens is Dwight Yoakam, who has quickly become something of a country sensation in Los Angeles. The hype is hardly overblown, as his six-song debut EP, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." (Oak OR 2356), proves to be the most auspicious introduction to a country talent in years.
If it's not enough that Yoakam possesses a great, high country voice that can break into a yelp or moan at the drop of a painful lyric, he is also a superb songwriter. In the poignant "It Won't Hurt" or the rollicking "I'll Be Gone," Yoakam merges the open spirit of the West with the tense mountain sound of the Southeast. This trick hasn't been pulled since Gram Parsons became a honky-tonk angel.